Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women worldwide, and knowledge regarding its cause and pathogenesis is expanding rapidly. Persistent infection with one of about 15 genotypes of carcinogenic human papillomavirus (HPV) causes almost all cases. There are four major steps in cervical cancer development: infection of metaplastic epithelium at the cervical transformation zone, viral persistence, progression of persistently infected epithelium to cervical precancer, and invasion through the basement membrane of the epithelium. Infection is extremely common in young women in their first decade of sexual activity. Persistent infections and precancer are established, typically within 5-10 years, from less than 10% of new infections. Invasive cancer arises over many years, even decades, in a minority of women with precancer, with a peak or plateau in risk at about 35-55 years of age. Each genotype of HPV acts as an independent infection, with differing carcinogenic risks linked to evolutionary species. Our understanding has led to improved prevention and clinical management strategies, including improved screening tests and vaccines. The new HPV-oriented model of cervical carcinogenesis should gradually replace older morphological models based only on cytology and histology. If applied wisely, HPV-related technology can minimise the incidence of cervical cancer, and the morbidity and mortality it causes, even in low-resource settings.
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